Part 5: The Lower Canyon, Days 6-8
“In this sometimes turbulent world, the river is a cosmic symbol of durability and destiny; awesome, but steadfast. I wish everyone could live for a while beside a great river.” – Helen Hayes
The Colorado River is a 1,450 mile long river in North America that begins at an elevation of around 14,000 feet near the Continental Divide in the Rocky Mountains. And it’s an oldie – I want to say the earliest record of the current Colorado dates back at least 6 million years. So I guess compared to the 1.6 billion year old rock layers, it’s really just a youngster. Either way, the Colorado River looks pretty dang stellar for its age. For just over 270 miles or so, it cuts through the Grand Canyon – we would eventually raft through 226 miles of the river in the Grand Canyon before take-out at Diamond Creek, starting out at an elevation of about 3,100 feet at the put-in at Lee’s Ferry. Lee’s Ferry is roughly 15 miles downriver from the dam. As a dam controlled river, the Colorado provides power to nearby cities and communities as the water is released from Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam. Interestingly enough, no water from the Colorado actually reaches the sea. A little hard to believe, but true nonetheless.
The release of the water from the dam, based on power usage, causes the fluctuation in water level (that we most notably witnessed on the first night/early morning at the ledge camp) of the river. The Colorado ranges anywhere from 76 to 300 feet in width, travels at an average speed of 4 mph, and has an average depth of about 35 feet – we would pass through the narrowest part of the canyon in a few days. And it is cold. I have mentioned this before, and it is worth mentioning again. It is a very brisk 48 degrees as it is released from the dam – and it pretty much stays that cold for the duration of the trip. Yes, it does technically “warm” up a few degrees as we would make our way down the river, but for this Southern gal, it’s take-your-breath-away cold anyway you slice it – there is no real difference between the 48 and 52 degree water, in my Southern opinion!
Since I am rambling on about the river, it’s probably a good time to talk about the rapids and some other river rafting related snippets. Makes some sense given we are entering into a section of the canyon with arguably the best whitewater of the river. Most of the rapids on the Colorado through the Grand Canyon are created by debris flows, which deposit rocks and boulders, while at the same time often narrowing the section of the river. So suddenly you have a high volume of water now passing much faster through a narrow section of the river equipped with boulders and rocks, making for one heck of a rapid. Now. When you have a massive volume of water traveling through a narrow section that eventually opens up to a wider section beyond the river’s obstacles, water’s natural course is to fill in the extra space. This fabulous, fun-loving, feature of the river where the water runs upstream is called an eddy. Speaking now from experience, getting sucked into an eddy (which is very easy to do) when you are on the oars is an irritating, amusing, and often times exhausting situation! Some skill is certainly required to find your way back into the current…which at times may be as small as a mere bubble line going down river! I kid you not. An eddy is a real pain in the tookus!
Again, this is just my overly simplified commentary on the subject – our guides did a far better job explaining!
Back to the river.
After getting back on the river with our pal Howie, he checked our lifejackets (always a humbling occurrence), and we made our way down river through Granite Gorge – a section of the canyon which I can only describe as a violent-looking section of black schist and veins of pink Zoroaster granite that looks as though it blasted clear through the Earth’s crust with some pretty major force. This is the part of the canyon that narrows, and houses some of the well-known whitewater. Let the fun begin! We headed towards several more fun rapids, which Howie liked to call the Holy Trinity – Horn Creek, Granite, and Hermit rapids. As Howie is a master of the river, his descriptions of these three rapids were spot-on.
I don’t remember much about Horn Creek rapid, other than getting soaked big-time from a pretty large wave and it being a wild ride, but I remember Granite and Hermit. Howie had compared Granite to the likes of a washing machine with multiple cycles. And we would test out every one of them. The waves in Granite don’t look as though they have any type of pattern, so they come at you sideways and head-on, seeming to bounce off the steep walls along the river, and just pounded the boat, soaking you in the process. It was literally like traveling through a running washing machine. Next up was Hermit rapid, which Howie had earlier described as a pretty intense roller coaster. The wave train of this rapid was freakin’ awesome. Howie had told us to count the waves, because wave 5 was a big one and that if you listened closely on wave 5 you could hear angels singing! Oh my lawd. Once again, Howie was spot-on. All the waves were big, but at wave 4 you kind of felt like “eh, the fourth one doesn’t look that big” and then WHAM, you see the fifth wave and suddenly find your self tightening your grip on the lines. Wave 5 was a huge, powerful, wall of Perfect Storm-esque water. So. Much. Fun.
Thanks to the masterful skills of Howie, we survived all three rapids and had a blast. Shortly after Hermit, we stopped at Schist campsite at about mile 96.5 and called it a day on the river. Schist camp was a pretty cool spot – a sandy beach interrupted by the black, sharp, and steep basalt, which had thankfully retained all the heat of the day, and made for some pretty quick drying of gear and clothes! Dean and I helped Howie, and Alan in the kitchen – grits was on the menu tonight…whaaaat – as they told us the stories of how they met their better halfs and how to determine our ‘alternate lifestyle’ names (Howie won this by a landslide with the name, Penny Windsor). Story-time was brief – which blew my mind as the boys swimming the Colorado had little to say about the three ridiculously awesome rapids we had just experienced – so my dad and I took our stab at locating some constellations given it was a clear, beautiful night in the canyon. Thankfully the Big Dipper was in plain view – it helps tremendously in orienting yourself after you spot Vega (which is bright and typically directly overhead). We were able to ID the Northern Cross, Corona Borealis, and a few others, and Orion in the early morning.
Day 7 kicked off with a geology talk by Colin (with a special appearance by Alan) generally focused around the infamous Crystal Rapid, which we would run this morning after a great story from Howie about running Crystal during the 1983 high water, our daily morning readings from Clare, and a quick scout of it down the river. My dad and I took up residence in Clare’s boat today, as we had not yet been in her boat. Our trip leader, Clare, is a little fireball of energy, always smiling, laughing, or hoopin’ and hollerin’ her way down the river. She has former river guides in her family, so running rivers is in her blood – she has guided on other rivers, including the Rogue, before making her way to the Colorado. And you can tell that’s the case through her passionate descriptions of the canyon and river history, her enthusiasm for the geology, and her clear respect and love for the great outdoors. She is from Cali and has a degree in English and Creative Writing – and the girl loves to tell a great story – I’ve never seen a guide with so many books in her library who actually used them on a trip! Clare is also in my age bracket – so we had some great and very fun conversations over the course of the trip, and I will continue to remind her (subtly, of course) that I’d be a great assistant should she ever need one on the river! One of the more entertaining qualities of our trip leader, aside from her ability to extremely quickly make her way up a trail/pile of boulders, was her description of the hikes. A Clare description of, “It’s just a short, easy, wet-shoe hike up to the waterfall” loosely translates to “It’s a minimum 45-minute rock climb, up and over treacherous, narrow ledges and slick rocks up to the waterfall.” And I’m only exaggerating slightly!
I mistakenly picked the right front seat of Clare’s boat, and paid for it all day long, closely resembling a chubby, wet, rag-doll by the end of the day. It was not feeling like an equal opportunity boat – thanks Clare! We stopped just a little ways down from camp to get out and scout Crystal Rapid. Clare chose to run right, and I think everyone else would run it left. While that small fact may have terrified some, especially after the stories of Crystal from the morning chat, I just figured, heck – as long as your boatman (it is perfectly acceptable to refer to a female river guides as a boatman – they are not offended by that, so everyone settle) is pumped and confident about their run, right or left is irrelevant to me. We had a fun, clean run of Crystal (I somehow seemed to be the only one who was soaked) and pulled off into a rocky eddy (on purpose) to make sure the rest of the fleet made it through. After waiting for what felt like an eternity for the last couple of boats to run Crystal, we found ourselves delayed by a momentary, but exhilarating, rattlesnake rescue operation in which we saved a drowning rattlesnake and escaped with our lives in tact (i.e. we got stuck on some rocks and had to maneuver our way off of them and back into the current – but the rattlesnake story was way more fun to tell at lunch).
Next up was about a 7-mile stretch of super fun rapids including: Tuna, Lower Tuna, Sapphire, Turquoise, 104-mile, Ruby, and Serpentine. I again, somehow seemed to be the only one on the boat who got soaked. On every rapid. Clare!!! (It was blazing hot that day, so it was actually not so bad to be soaked all day!) We stopped for lunch at the small Ross Wheeler camp on river left, where we were entertained by a story about The Ross Wheeler, a steel boat perched up on some rocks that was abandoned by Charles Russell way back in 1915. After lunch, we made our way downriver a short distance and stopped at Shinumo Creek. So this place was pretty dang cool, and just a short, wet-shoe, hike up the creek to a very powerful waterfall. Being this was a hike not described to me by our trip leader, it really was a short, wet-shoe, hike up to the waterfall! We hung out here for a good while, relaxing in the shade and while some of our group made their way under the waterfall for what looked to be a punishing back massage! The clear and warmer water felt great though, so it was nice to be able to spend some time here for sure!
We made our way through a few more fun rapids, and barely survived the feared and horrifying Waltenberg rapid (this is an exaggeration, but Colin talked this rapid up so much all day that it had to be done). After escaping with our lives, we pulled up into Lower Garnet camp on river right. It was a tight squeeze for the six boats, and two had to be tied to the back of the front four boats. This camp had a steep bank, but at the top it was a nice sandy spot with the expected red rocks of the canyon, and a scenic, but seemingly semi-private groover location. Although I had good intentions of helping in the kitchen, especially since it was the night of the famed Big Cookie, I found myself instead hanging out on the boats, next to the produce cooler, chatting with Clare, Kim, and some of the other guides. Clare and I were swapping some funny stories, which included teaching her one of my favorite, and classic, Henry-isms, “She/He ain’t got a lick ‘a damn sense!” I’ve never been more proud, than to have someone pick up on that line so quickly and use it effectively later on in the trip – nice work, Clare!
After stuffing ourselves with the Big Cookie – which as you might see on TripAdvisor, is a highly rated and delicious, giant cookie – we all eagerly awaited story-time by Alan. The guides were hanging out, down on their boats, laughing and having a great time – not even aware that the group had been gathered at the top of the bank for at least 10 minutes, patiently waiting for Alan to read us more of the story! I found it amusing! One of the group – who – ehem – will remain nameless – felt a decline in his patience level and whistled for Alan, who had completely forgotten about story-time. He was up on the bank with book in hand in no time. Funny. Before Alan got to the book, we were all blessed with the telling of the story of how Colin nearly missed his first trip with AZRA due to a run in with the law, a trip that Howie was on as well. I knew there was something about that Colin that he wasn’t sharing! It was a hilarious story, and would cause Colin to become the butt of many jokes for the remainder of the trip. After the deluxe story-time, we all headed to our camps and retired (well some of us slept – I read my book) for the evening.
Day 8 began as expected, and I efficiently and quietly packed up my sleep kit and dry bags and started the daily routine of walking them down closer to the boats before breakfast. As I was making my way down the well trodden path, through the rocks, that’s when I heard the rattle.